Saturday, May 17, 2008

Zen Koan Cheat Sheet

My class at UW is coming to a close all too soon. Next week is the Wes and Anitra show. If these kids think I'm a freak they ain't seen nothin' yet. Today my friend Sarah Dooling came to discuss the research she did for the PhD she's finishing up. In interviews of 80 homeless people, she found that the normative ideas of home and the limited notions of housing and shelter that these offer do not meet the needs of many of the single homeless people that spoke with her. "Home" to many of these people has little to do with four walls and a roof.

While Sarah spoke highly of the 1811 Eastlake project as a program that suspends the moral calculus of deserving and undeserving poor to meet people where they are in a way that is more cost-effective than the alternative, this is one program serving 75 people. We need many more 1811 Eastlakes. It's a beginning. Not an end. Meanwhile, a radical disconnect exists between the cost of housing and the earning power of the poor and working class.

Much of our time has been spent in exploring the contradictions of the Ten Year Plan paradigm for ending homelessness. Sarah went into this some today as well. Why do the Governing Board, the Interagency Council, and the Consumer Advisory Group all meet separately, with the Director acting as the node of communication between these bodies? Why is the inclusion of homeless people in the process so tokenized and embedded in a relationship of powerlessness? What's up with the fetishized goal of 9,500 units of housing, which pretends that the various market relationships that create homelessness will stand frozen in place for a full decade? Why should we believe that Governing Board member and multi-millionaire businessman Blake Nordstrom — who doesn't want a bunch of homeless people in Victor Steinbrueck Park crapping up the view from his luxury penthouse — is motivated by great humanitarian ideals, or that his much acclaimed business acumen contains the solution to homelessness?

And so forth. The gaps in sense and logic are legion.

Our reading for today was the final chapter of Todd Depastino's extraordinary Citizen Hobo, which traces the evolution of homelessness in America from the post-Civil War period forward. While post-World War II education benefits for white returning GIs, readily available FHA loans for white people, and the Fordist pact between government, business, and labor led to steady reductions in inequality and a rising standard of living — primarily for white people — and the virtual elimination of homelessness, the onslaught of the globalized economy drew what was underneath all along out into the open and blew it apart.

Women, kids, and people of color — those who have been most economically vulnerable all along — are the big losers in the new social order. The economic gains of feminism split across class lines, as did the economic progress that followed the civil rights movement. The racialization and the feminization of poverty drove wedges between the poor and their middle class allies just as homelessness was being reinvented in the context of a globalized economy.

While it is commonly understood that woman and children are the largest and fastest growing sector of the homeless, and that people of color — and Blacks in particular — experience homelessness far disproportionately to their percentage of general population, the Ten Year Plan paradigm narrowly draws our attention to the visible poor: the dysfunctional by definition ten to fifteen percent of the homeless who have been defined as "chronic."

While the chronic homelessness obsession is relatively new, the deserving versus undeserving poor debate never left us. For years, advocates focused their attention on homeless families. While this may have been politically expedient, it may have laid the seeds for where we now find ourselves. Depastino writes,
With their ability to arouse pity and inspire protectionist intervention, homeless women, especially those with dependent children [became] the most recognizable emblems of homeless victimization. By contrast, homeless Black and Hispanic men, who tended to remain on the streets far longer than their female counterparts, raised the specter of an undomesticated and "savage" masculinity in need of stern control. This dual face of homelessness — "worthy" mothers on the one hand and "unworthy" men of color on the other — governed the most common responses to the crisis: calls for charity and government shelters and demands for police action against panhandlers and squatters.
Over the eighties and into the nineties, he says, liberals and conservatives fought over the definition of homelessness, and for a time, the liberals won. The "broad constructionist" approach of focusing on women and children as economic victims largely beat out the conservative "strict constructionist" strategy of defining homeless people as "men who had exchanged the responsibilities of bread winning for the "savage" dangers and freedoms of the streets."

I would argue that this "victory" was both temporary and illusory.

At the beginning of my class, I offered the Ten Year Plan paradigm contradiction for consideration as a zen koan. Why would the Bush administration — arguably the most hostile administration to the interests of poor people since Hoover — take upon themselves the "challenge" of ending homelessness? Even as they continue to slash the federal housing budget and other supports to poor people. In what universe does this proposition make sense? I proposed to my students that this, an apparently, absurd, unsolvable conundrum, when meditated upon diligently, may offer the beginnings of enlightenment.

Today after class, Sarah and I went to Than Brothers, the site of my horrible accident, for an incident free bowl of pho. I shared the results of my own enlightenment over lunch.

"It's about redefinition," I said. "It's a thin pretense of a solution that leverages the relatively paltry levels of federal funding for homeless services to narrow the advocacy focus to the most stigmatized sector of homeless people. It distracts us from making the connections to globalization by focusing relentlessly on the fucked up and easy to blame poor. Also, cities are being re-invented in the post-Fordist era as islands of affluence, where those who can afford urban living are attracted by the upscale amenities. Visible poverty runs counter to the interests of the huge investment capital that is at stake in this reinvention. There's an alignment of interests there. This is about reducing homelessness in the public imagination to the undeserving poor and uncoupling the issue from poverty and globalization."

Sarah stopped eating her pho. "That's dead on," she said. Damn right it is.


Diane Nilan said...

Well, Tim, I find this fascinating but I have a few questions...

I can't wrap my little brain around this concept of globalization and I want your take on it. Is it good, bad, or a mixed bag? If it is a mixed bag, as I would guess, are we missing the boat on how to capitalize (pun intended!) on it?

Your point on urban development strategies may be well taken, but much of this country is non-urban, and much of that appears to be in dire straits. Since the absurd 10-year plan is, well, absurd, would it make sense to expand our advocacy efforts to highlight--or at least acknowledge--the plight of homeless adults and children in non-urban areas to illustrate the multi-level approach to homelessness and poverty needed?

So, are you over the projectile stuff?

Tim Harris said...

Happily, the flu was of the 24-hour variety.

Globalization is a lot to wrap one's head around. It's a mixed bag that's mostly bad in terms of the erosion of worker power and the radical growth in inequality, but good in terms of the price of consumer goods and the rate of return for investors.

Robert Reich's Supercapitalism is the most compreensive and accessible treatment on what it means that I've encountered. The basic fall-out is an erosion of democracy, widening inequality, and the marginalization of those who are left out of the two-tiered economy.

Tim Gibson's Securing the Spectacular City is an excellent take on how this relates specifically to development issues in Seattle. I've written about both, and you can click on labels here to find more.

In short, yes, we're missing the boat. The debate on homelessness mostly takes place at a superficial level of understanding that misses the huge transformations that are shaping our world for the worse.

While rural and family homelessness both appear to be on the increase, the obsession with chronic homelessness and the data behind it have allowed this to proceed without much of a challenge. More to the point is the explosion in incarceration, which has deepened the racialization of poverty (click on the Bruce Western label for more on this) which goes to the issue of the economic marginalization and containment of unskilled labor that is no longer in demand.

I've been thinking lately about how critical it is for us to be able to draw a line from the macro economic trends behind homelessness in ways that are easy to grasp and offer a basis for common strategies of resistance that transcend narrow issue focus. Easier said than done, but something I'm working on.

Anonymous said...

I read in one of the dailies that a recent immigrant from Detroit, some affluent member of the migratory upper-middle-class, no doubt, has taken to video-taping the nocturnal doings of some of the less affluent but traditional residents of the Belltown neightborhood and posting them on YouTube, along with scolding commentary and complaints about the gendarmes not doing their job as she thinks it needs to be done. This kind of voyuerism makes me rather ill in and of itself, but it also points up the problem with cities as new "islands of urban affluence." Many people wind up on the streets of downtown Seattle because they have nowhere else to be. And now we have our little urban princess in her $600,000 condo (where she moved by choice) complaining about the riff-raff she feels obligated to spy upon. Perhaps she left Detroit to get away from poor folks; in the cities of the USA, however, the truth is on the streets, and bless them for their ability to survive our neglect and hypocrisy. Pull down the shades, turn up the 60" teevee, and shut the "F" up, I say.

Tim Harris said...

The Princess you refer to lives within a block of Real Change. I've seen the video, which the neighborhood group of business people is mostly quite proud of, and had exactly the same reaction as you.

If you look closely, one of them is wearing a Real Change badge. It's probably unwise for me to point this out, as I'm sure there are people who would be deeply shocked that a Real Change vendor would do something so offensive as to smoke crack. Our rules are that she should ave taken the badge off and then refrain from selling the paper until the buzz wears off, which would take a good ten minutes before she perhaps offered someone a blowjob to once again get what her body craves. The video is so grainy I can't identify either of the people in it, so I'm just speculating here.

This is, of course, extremely pathetic. Her life sucks in ways that few people are prepared to begin to understand. Which is what makes the utter lack of empathy of Princess Videographer so disgusting.

Anonymous said...

I tried posting a comment about this article before- but I apparently did not spend enough time on the computers at Real Change back in the day enough to do it...besides, I needed to go home and take a nap to calm down. Time 2 then:

I used to paint at the big table at Streetlife Gallery many years ago and was always shocked to see all of those people chasing the pipe- so to speak. I mean, pah-leese! Grandmothers?

I am less shocked to hear that the landed gentry with film and globalizing homelessophobic neo-urbaneers with survalance tapes and I Got No Life videos of needful people still on 2nd Ave are posting them online and fetching copies over to the West Precinct.(Hint: cops herd folks to an area where they know where they are- HEY LADY!, the cops know they're there!)

But shocked wasn't the word that would best describe how f*#^ing pissed off I was to see; in print, someone comming up with the idea -someone who is trying to prove up on some PhD- with the notion of grouping homeless folks as being Deserving or Undeserving Homeless. People like this are the reason we have Safe Harbors and the Ten Year Plan to Continue Homelessness.

Okay...maybe that last part shouldn't be blamed entirely on her, but here's the deal: NOBODY deserves to be homeless -ever- period. 1811 Eastlakes program paradigm sucks if it's about whether some are deserving or not.

There's not much difference between Vicodan and Heroin and there's not much difference between an '02 Moon Mountain Estate Reserve Cabernet and Crack. Tim, you should know the only real difference: Homeless folks have to go to the vendor on 2nd Ave., while Others, use the phone for home delivery. Still lova ya tho --jOhN

Tim Harris said...

Point well taken. I didn't invent, however, the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor. This is older than Christ, and drives public policy whether we like it or not. There are those who are easily creamed into programs where they will succeed (as they would eventually anyhow) allowing service providers to justify funding with happily high success rates, and there are those who are more universally despised, chased around, arrested, and left to compete for a token amount of services that require a year of two of obediently jumping through hoops to attain. And yes, middle class people do their drinking and drugging in private where they are less exposed to risk and ridicule, and even when they get caught, the consequences are comparatively minor.